DFG-Leibniz Center for Surface Process and Climate Studies

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Research

Background

The multifaceted interactions between tectonics, topography, climate, and surface processes constitute a rich and some of the most fascinating areas of research in the geosciences. It has been known for a long time that tectonism is critical in the evolution of climate, affecting atmospheric circulation and ocean currents. Clearly, such interactions between climate and tectonics have existed throughout most of Earth’s history. However, with the increased availability of dating tools the analysis of geologicaly young tectonic processes and superposed effects of climate change at different time scales offers unique and direct insights into process rates and their determinants.

Recently, it has become evident that climate can greatly alter crustal deformation processes, previously thought to be under the sole control of tectonics. In this respect, one of the most intriguing and innovative aspects in the geosciences is the recognition of positive feedback mechanisms between the effects of sustained climate conditions, surface processes, and tectonics. Therefore, the deformation of orogens and rift zones, amount and frequency of precipitation, and erosional removal of material cannot be understood in isolation. Unfortunately, the time and length scales at which changes may be effectively introduced into the tectonics/climate system are vaguely known and often subject to speculation, thus making these issues first-order research topics. Importantly, once natural climate variability exceeds a certain, yet unknown threshold, its impact on the locus and rate of deformation may change significantly. At shorter time scales dramatic changes in the climate system affect landscape-forming processes and ultimately, the human habitat. Thus by linking climate archives, erosive records, and landscape evolution, it will be eventually possible to identify the thresholds of climate and surface processes in different climatic settings.

However, the task of correctly assessing the coupling between tectonics and climate in differentiating tectonically versus climatically driven processes and their bearing on material flux and topographic evolution is compounded by the impacts of long-wavelength climate change or short-term climate variability. For example, discrepancies between erosion-rate estimates on different timescales show that climate change and climate variability have fundamental impacts on erosive efficiency. At the level of short-lived climatic perturbations, apart from gaining a better knowledge of the mechanistic principles that govern them, it is therefore extremely important to assess the efficiency of surface processes on a variety of time scales ranging from the present to centennial and millennial time scales. Importantly, on the human time scale, changing concentrations of greenhouse gases and other (human and/or natural) alterations of the Earth system may increase the possibility of pronounced, abrupt climate events and associated sudden events in surface processes that have far-reaching repercussions.

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